Myanmar’s leaders deny human rights abuses against its Rohingya Muslim population. But international organizations like Amnesty International have documented systematic, military-led violence against the country’s religious minority following insurgent attacks in August 2017.
“What we've seen over the last seven months is the Myanmar military has really launched an attack on the [Rohingya] population as a whole,” said Matt Wells, a human rights investigator with Amnesty International.
Wells’ job involves documenting and corroborating human rights abuses. During recent trips to refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, he spoke directly with survivors of attacks that range from sexual violence to the burning of entire villages. His organization has corroborated firsthand accounts using technologies like satellite imagery.
“We've documented more than 350 villages that have been totally or partially destroyed in the last seven months. And the results of this has been more than 670,000 people have been forced across the border into Bangladesh in the span of seven months.”
The UN Security Council visited Myanmar for the first time on April 30. Following the delegation’s visit, the United Nations called for the safe and voluntary repatriation of Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh. Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a resettlement agreement in January, but many Rohingya say they fear going back and the agreement has not been implemented.
In order to guarantee safe conditions for the Rohingya, Wells wants to see action from powerful actors, like the United States. In December 2017 the United States imposed sanctions on general Maung Maung Soe, who oversaw the most recent violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority. Still, Wells is urging the consideration of a bill authored by Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, which would impose additional sanctions, provide humanitarian aid and prohibit certain types of military cooperation between the United States and Myanmar.
Matt Wells provides context to the Rohingya crisis:
This is a population, the Rohingya, that has been subjected to really systemic discrimination for years, in a way that we have saidamounts to apartheid. They have been denied the ability to move around. They have to get specific travel authorization simply to move from village to village. They're denied access to education. They are denied access to healthcare… So what's happened over the last seven months, this very acute violence that's been perpetrated against them, comes on the heels of what has been a whole system of persecution that's existed for a long time to the authorities in Myanmar.
They are considered to be to be foreigners, to not actually be part of the fabric of the country even though they have lived in this part of Myanmar for generations… And so you have this deep-seated racism, really, that has been unlocked over the last year or two, in particular by the rise of populism in Myanmar. You had a rise of really Buddhist nationalist populist movement that is has? then helped fuel a lot of the suspicion and actually outright hatred towards the Rohingya population.
Matt Wells describes one Rohingya victim he met in Bangladesh in September 2017:
I interviewed a 12-year-old girl named Fatima. She had been in a village in Myanmar where the military had surrounded it. She was at home with her family as the soldiers came in, surrounded her house. She saw as her father was shot and killed. She saw her younger sister, a 10-year-old, was shot and killed. She herself was shot in the thigh. When I saw her, she still had the gunshot wound in her thigh. A neighbor had fortunately picked her up and carried her to a neighboring village, and then ultimately onto to Bangladesh. And it is a story that I heard again and again, in which in response to these attacks by an armed group, the Myanmar military made no effort to distinguish between the actual attackers and the broader civilian population, and instead launched an attack on the population as a whole, through killing, through sexual violence against women and girls, and through the systematic burning of villages across this region.
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Suzette Grillot: Matt Wells, welcome to World Views.
Matt Wells: Thank you for having me.
Grillot: Well, let's see. You work for Amnesty International now, but your background, educational background is in history, psychology and law, and then you've gotten off into human rights. You actually study and engage on issues of mass human rights violations, along the lines of atrocities, you know, horrible things like genocide.
Wells: I was working with Human Rights Watch at the time of the civil war in Cote d'Ivoire in 2010-2011, and through that, you know, documented horrific abuses that were committed by both sides of that conflict. And with that really started down the path of developing a specialty in investigating mass atrocities and particularly in situations of armed conflict. I worked in South Sudan. I worked in D.R. Congo. And, most recently, I focused on Myanmar and the ongoing crisis related to the Rohingya Muslim population there.
Grillot: We've talked a lot about the Rohingya crisis on the show. And so we're definitely going to get to that. But when you say that you you've witnessed abuses, human rights abuses, I mean, what are you talking about? What are the things that you have been witnessing? What are the kinds of tools that these combatants in civil war are engaging in?
Wells: So in many of these places we're talking about, you know, civilians are really being targeted by armed groups on both sides. It obviously depends very much on the country, you know, what exactly is happening. But, you know, in many instances I'm directly, you know, interviewing people who have been victims themselves to human rights abuses or who have directly witnessed often, you know, a family member who's been killed, who's been, you know, taken to detention and subjected to torture. And so the work is often rooted in speaking with direct victims and witnesses to human rights violations that have taken place and coupling that with new technologies that help us really corroborate what we're hearing from witnesses, from satellite imagery, to photos and videos that we can verify in terms of what's happening in particular places. And we can bring all of that together, and then, you know, present a really tight picture of exactly what's happened and who is responsible for the violations.
Grillot: And when you say “present that information,” who are you presenting it to? Tell us about that step of gathering that information. What do you do with it? Who does it go to?
Wells: You know, often there are kind of two different targets. There's a wider, more general audience who want to be engaged on a particular issue, that want to take interest in, you know, major human rights situations that are going on around the world. And then the other thing is, you know, targeted advocacy with policymakers, whether that's in Washington D.C., or in Brussels with the European Union, or, you know, in London with the U.K. governments. We speak with, meet with those who have the ability to influence governments around the world and try to force them to change the practices that are leading to these human rights violations.
I'm based in D.C. so I spend a lot of time, for example, doing advocacy with different parts of the U.S. government and particularly on Myanmar. Right now, trying to get them to do things like imposing targeted financial sanctions on military officials who were implicated in the atrocities against the Rohingya, to impose an arms embargo on Myanmar. And so it's pushing for practical policy recommendations that we believe can reduce the human rights violations that are taking place and ultimately ensure accountability for the people who are responsible for them.
Grillot: You've written a piece about how all the civilians suffer. You've written quite a bit, actually, about what, you know, civilians experience... Refugees. You mentioned that obviously, civilians are the targets of a lot of this. As far as, like, all the civilians suffer, you know, what else are we talking about here? Displacement? You know, having to flee? I mean, is this kind of a broader picture? Not just suffering torture and, you know, armed conflict, but actually, like, losing their homes? What does is? the bigger picture there?
Wells: So we take Myanmar, for example, and what's happening right now with the Rohingya Muslim population in Rakhine state in Myanmar. What we've seen over the last seven months is the Myanmar military has really launched an attack on the population as a whole, in response to attacks that were carried out by an armed group. They have gone into villages, often surrounded villages, opened fire on men, women and children as they flee. They have systematically burned down villages. We've documented more than 350 villages that have been totally or partially destroyed in the last seven months. And the results of this has been more than 670,000 people have been forced across the border into Bangladesh in the span of seven months.
And just, you know, one specific example... During one of my first trips to Bangladesh back in September, which was right after this crisis broke out, I interviewed a 12-year-old girl named Fatima. She had been in a village in Myanmar where the military had surrounded it. She was at home with her family as the soldiers came in, surrounded her house. She was with her father, her siblings. Soldiers opened fire from behind. She saw as her father was shot and killed. She saw her younger sister, a 10-year-old, was shot and killed. She herself was shot in the thigh. When I saw her, she still had the gunshot wound in her thigh. A neighbor had fortunately picked her up and carried her to a neighboring village and then ultimately onto Bangladesh. And it is a story that I heard again and again, in which in response to these attacks by an armed group, the Myanmar military made no effort to distinguish between the actual attackers and the broader civilian population, and instead launched an attack on the population as a whole, through killing, through sexual violence against women and girls, and through the systematic burning of villages across this region.
Grillot: Tell us... Give us some background here, now that we we’re talking about the Rohingya crisis, but what is the the back story about why this is happening?
Wells: This is a population, the Rohingya, that has been subjected to really systemic discrimination for years in a way that we have set said? amounts to apartheid. They have been denied the ability to move around. They have to get specific travel authorization simply to move from village to village. They're denied access to education, they are denied access to healthcare. People who fall sick or suffer injuries have to get permission from local authorities simply to go to the hospital.
And even then, if they do get to the hospital, they are segregated there. There's a ward just for the Muslim population. So what's happened over the last seven months this very acute violence that's been perpetrated against them comes on the heels of what has been a whole system of persecution that's existed for a long time to the authorities in Myanmar. They are considered to be to be foreigners, to not actually be part of the fabric of the country, even though they have lived in this part of Myanmar for generations. The Myanmar government considers them Bengali, that they are actually from Bangladesh as opposed to Myanmar, again, despite the fact that families have been there for generations. And so you have this deep-seated racism, really, that has been unlocked over the last year or two in particular by the rise of populism in Myanmar. You had a rise of really Buddhist nationalist populist movement that has then helped fuel a lot of the suspicion and actually outright hatred towards the Rohingya population.
Grillot: But this is all… I think some of us are so shocked about this because Myanmar's leader... She fought for democracy for so long. She was imprisoned in her home. She was under house arrest. She, too, was persecuted. She, you know, suffered great things. How is this happening under her watch? I mean, she's won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Grillot: So how does that happen?
I think there are two key things here. One is she exercises no control over the military. The military has complete power over its operations with no civilian oversight. There is no civilian oversight of investigations, for example, so the military controls its own judicial processes, which has fed this complete impunity in Myanmar in which the military operates entirely above the law and there is almost never any accountability no matter how horrific the atrocities. And so, on one hand, Aung San Suu Kyi does not control the military, and what we are seeing is a military-led campaign to drive the Rohingya out of the country.
Now the second thing, though, is that she has failed in terms of moral leadership. Even if she doesn't control the military, not only has she not said the right things, not only has she not condemned the horrific atrocities, but her office has, at times, made things worse. Her spokesperson has said things that border on hate speech or incitement. They have blocked, along with the military, humanitarian access to this part of Myanmar, making it difficult to get aid to the Rohingya who remain in the country. They blocked access to journalists, to human rights groups like our own. And they have cracked down on journalists who report on the atrocities. There are two Reuters journalists who have been arrested, who have been in detention since December for doing their work as journalists, for exposing a particular massacre. And you know the civilian governments and Aung San Suu Kyi herself has failed to do enough to even protect things like the freedom of the press and free expression in the country.
Grillot: Well this obviously raises, you know, the responses. I mean, you mentioned the work that you do, the advocacy work, trying to establish some sort of practical action. I mean, obviously everything you're doing is largely coming from the outside, right? I mean, what are you going to do about the leadership in Myanmar, the military in Myanmar?
But there are powerful actors who can do something about this, and so, you've also written other pieces about, you know, people that are afraid and forgotten. And it just… the Rohingya crisis really, really seems to underscore this notion of people that are forgotten, even though they're on the front pages and in the headlines and we see the evidence we see what's going on. So what has the response been? How confident are you that there's going to be much more response from, again, powerful actors elsewhere that can perhaps put some pressure on Myanmar, particularly on the military? You know? And how hopeful are you that that's going to actually happen in terms of any kind of way forward on this crisis?
Wells: You know, there has been outcry around the world. There's been condemnation from governments around the world, but we haven't seen enough action. The US government has imposed sanctions on a specific general in the Myanmar military who we and others have implicated for his role in leading a unit that has carried out a lot of this. So that's a positive first step, but it's nowhere near enough. We need additional targeted financial sanctions against senior military officials who are responsible for human rights violations. You know, there is a bill that pushes for accountability, that pushes for additional sanctions, that demands that the Myanmar military reform before it gets the benefits of U.S. military engagement with it in the future. It is bipartisan. The lead drafter is Sen. McCain. It has a number of both Democratic and Republican cosponsors. It would, in terms of U.S. leadership, go a long way towards starting to address the situation. It provides additional humanitarian funds for the refugees in Bangladesh and to begin to address this culture of impunity that exists in the Myanmar military and that underpins so many of these atrocities that have been committed.
Grillot: Well Matt, thank you so much for being here today and for sharing.
Wells: Thanks for having me.
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